Reports and papers

Seminar report - State failure in the Middle East

20 Oct 2016 - 11:46
Bron: Yazan Homsy/flickr

A paralyzed world order?

During the first Clingendael Futures Seminar, Professor James Fearon of Stanford University gave a keynote address for a select group of leading policymakers and top scholars. The seminar focused on state failure and civil conflicts in the Middle East, and the dilemmas for today’s policymaking. 

Trends in armed conflict
Fearon started off by clarifying some civil conflict trends. Rather than a major increase after the Cold War or a recent increase in the number of new civil conflicts, the problem of civil wars has more to do with the inability to get civil conflicts to stop: the rate at which conflicts terminate is simply lower than the rate at which new ones begin. As Professor Fearon explained, ‘If on average you put more water in a tub than you take out, what happens? It gradually fills up. And that’s what’s been going on in terms of civil wars around the world. It has led to an accumulation of long-running conflicts.’ The disconnect between conflict onset and termination has been a constant feature of the post-1945 international order.

This insight has two consequences. On the one hand, the perceived increase in civil conflicts in the 1990s had little to do with the end of the Cold War (on the contrary, the data shows that the total number of civil wars has actually decreased since the 1990s). On the other hand, it shifts the attention away to a key question: why do more conflicts start than end? Fearon argued that state weakness is the main reason for the sustained pattern since 1945 and that the Middle East is particularly vulnerable.

Since the creation of the United Nations after World War II, the world has seen a steady increase in the number of states (prominent reasons include, but are not limited to, decolonisation and the break-up of the Soviet Union). Many of these new, small states are administratively, financially and politically weak because their institutions were built by colonial powers to facilitate cash crop and natural resource extraction. For this reason weak states are conducive to conflict in two distinct ways: they cannot effectively combat insurgencies, nor can they commit to war-avoiding settlements. Combating insurgencies requires sustained and concerted efforts, while war-avoiding settlements require a continued commitment. Both are difficult to provide by weak states. As pointed out by Professor Fearon, ‘Weak states provide good conditions for insurgencies.’ The trigger for violence is often a ‘random shock to the relative strength of the rebel group versus the central government’, pushing insurgencies over a threshold of military viability.

State failure and conflict in the Middle East
While there has been a reduction of conflicts since the 1990s, the Middle East has been an outlier. Fearon showed that while the number of civil wars declined since the early nineties in most areas of the world, the Middle East and North Africa region has actually experienced an increase since the 2000s. Notably, 9/11 seems to have initiated this rise, arguably following the United States’ involvement in the region through its ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq and the weak state it created. The increase follows a familiar violence pattern with insurgencies as the main contenders for state power. In the Middle East these uprisings have increasingly taken the shape of Islamist insurgencies. About 45% of today’s civil wars have a significant jihadi presence, compared to about 18% in 2000.

Given the fragile nature of states in the MENA and the jihadi character of insurgencies, what are the available options for policymakers? While a clear treatment regime has emerged, the problem is that this option is unlikely to work in the MENA.

When the UN Security Council ‘unfroze’ at the end of the Cold War, the international community’s response to civil conflict developed in the form of UN Peacekeeping Operations ¬– ‘a central part of the international “treatment regime” for the problem of civil war.’ Today, the international community sustains a steady number of around 17 peacekeeping missions per year. International Peacekeeping Operations have proven to be somewhat successful, but not all contexts are conducive to this type of international response. Third party-supported state building efforts such as those of the US and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan can be said to have failed, noted Fearon. Moreover, Peace Operations cannot be employed in conflicts where there are severe clashes of interest between great powers (Bosnia, Kosovo).

The problem for the MENA region is that ‘our international system’s Peace Keeping Operation “treatment regime” is not and probably cannot be applied in this region.’ On the one hand, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and particularly Syria have become internationalised to the extent that there are not only conflicts of interest between regional and great powers, but also that the conflicts have effectively turned into proxy wars. On the other hand, any international involvement ‘helps Jihadis and nationalists to make their case that they are being dominated by foreigners.’ What’s more, few countries are willing to become ‘catnip’ for jihadist violence. 

What then?
If the treatment regime does not work in the MENA, what then? Fearon proposed the idea of ‘containment’. State building processes are violent, bloody and slow. Fearon argued that this lesson tells us that, given unfavourable conditions, only locals can build a capable state, rather than third parties supporting a ruling or rebelling faction in a civil conflict. Specifically in the case of Syria, a real solution may only emerge through diplomatic or political settlements by regional and major powers. In the meantime, a Western response ought to aim at humanitarian relief and protection of adjacent states from spill-over effects (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Jordan). Importantly, Western policymakers might have to realise that bombing groups such as IS only helps them in the long run. Fearon suggests an ‘updated form of containment’: ‘We couldn’t destroy Communism by bombing them … It seems to be that they have to fail on their own’.